Saturday, August 9, 2008

Water Ireland?

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on August 7th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

I closed last week’s column with a promise to discuss why a wetter Ireland could also be facing water shortages in the very near future. I don’t blame you for finding such a prediction hard to believe, but if you will bear with me I think you will understand why this is a distinct possibility by the time you finish reading this week’s column.
In the United States (US) much of our population growth over the past fifty years has occurred in the south east from Virginia down thru the Carolinas and Georgia into our number one retirement and tourist destination of Florida. The other regions of the country which have grown the fastest have been the south west and the west coast including my home state of Texas as well as points farther west including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and our most populous state of California.
Unfortunately for people living in these regions, there is not an abundance of natural fresh water in any of these states. Out west they have to rely on water stored in the winter snow pack of the Rocky Mountains, while in states like Texas and Georgia they depend on rainwater runoff stored in huge lakes created to supply their growing populations with fresh drinking water. Currently the south east is suffering through the worst drought in memory and this region’s lakes are at record low levels, thus imperilling the supply of drinking water for the residents of large cities like Atlanta Georgia. Out west California is in the midst of the worst fire season in its history thanks to the effects of lengthy droughts and higher temperatures, both of which are linked to global warming.
However, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report released on 17 July does not give residents of these areas much comfort regarding the prospects for these current conditions improving anytime in the foreseeable future. The changing weather patterns out west are thinning the snowpack that feeds the region’s lakes and rivers. This in turn affects the electricity generated by hydroelectric dams as well as water supplies for farmers, ranchers and residents of cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
On the east coast rising sea levels have already led to severe erosion of barrier islands as well as the mainland, because the sea eats away at dry land and then storm surges come in and finish the job by washing it away in a flash. Rising sea levels also affect the wells which tap underground aquifers for fresh water, by leeching into the underground caverns and rock formations where this water collects. Cities from Texas to Georgia to Washington DC and New York are also experiencing significantly more “bad air” days, because heat speeds up the process by which automobile exhausts are cooked into smog. The report also found that rising temperatures are likely to mean more periods of sustained summer heat, which threatens the health of the poor and elderly who cannot afford the electricity expenses associated with running air conditioners.
Here in Ireland, the EPA report generated by John Sweeney and Laura McElwain revealed that Ireland’s changing weather patterns were increasing rainfall on the western and northern coasts of Ireland and decreasing in the east. But the more intense and longer periods of rainfall in those areas increases the possibility of floods in the winter and can also lead to water shortages in the summer. Then the twin forces of winter flooding and summer droughts increases soil erosion in Ireland’s interior at the same time rising sea levels and increased storm surge activity are eating away at the Emerald Isle’s edges.
Another important factor cited in the EPA report supports the contention that Ireland will soon be facing water shortages. That’s because Ireland’s population growth over the past thirty years has in many respects been similar to what we have seen in the US. Most of Ireland’s economic and population growth has been occurring in Dublin and the south east regions of the country which, like the American south and west, are the regions of Ireland that have the least in terms of water availability. For example, the EPA report notes that Dublin has only one water source and it is currently running at 99% of its capacity. What will happen when climate change due to global warming and less rainfall in Dublin and the south east regions of Ireland diminish the capacity of that single source of water for Dublin? Can you spell water r-a-t-i-o-n-i-n-g?
Mandatory water restrictions are now commonplace in the south and west of the United States so, even though you may find it hard to imagine such measures ever being introduced here in Ireland; don’t say you were never warned this could happen.
Sweeney and McElwain believe that the urbanization that occurred in Ireland after World War II was probably a factor in why Ireland cooled more slowly than the rest of the world. They also believe the growth in automobile usage and construction activity associated with the economic boom beginning in 1990 has contributed to the higher levels of warming Ireland is also experiencing. There isn’t much we can or should do to discourage construction activity, which has already slowed due to worsening economic conditions, or slow the pace of urbanization in Ireland. But Ireland’s EPA report clearly shows there is a need for much more than what is currently being done to discourage the use of automobiles and encourage the use of public transportation.
The recent tax increases to encourage the use of lower carbon emission engines was only a tiny step in the right direction. But Ireland must also undertake massive investments in its public transportation infrastructure to provide its residents with viable alternatives to the automobile. The prosperity Ireland has experienced over the last twenty years is what led to the growth in automobile usage here. But if something isn’t done to discourage it, Ireland will end up choking on the fumes of that same prosperity.

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